SANTA FE — There are many facets to our identities and how we construct and define ourselves; one of the most integral is language. For Native Americans, the speaking of mother tongues has historically been controversial, a practice often forbidden by white colonizers. This hits close to home for Tlingit artist Da-Ka-Xeen Mehner — his grandparents’ generation was not allowed to speak the Tlingit language. And while they fought for the right to make use of it, members of today’s generation are fighting to maintain it, to preserve the disappearing dialect at a time when many young Native Americans no longer speak it. In his current solo exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Native Arts (MoCNA), Mehner explores the politics surrounding his native language, as well as tribal tradition and contemporary technology.
In the south gallery of MoCNA’s location in downtown Santa Fe, Mehner has installed a series of stretched rawhide drums that feature renderings of the artist’s likeness in relief, video of amorphous shapes and colors tightly projected around the drums, and audio tracks ranging from what sound like Native chants to ambient noise, echoing throughout the space. The installation, titled Saligaaw (“it is loud-voiced” in Tlingit), is smartly layered; it creates a hybridity between the traditional craft of the rawhide drum and technological mediums like audio and video, as well as entering into conversation with the art historical trope of the self portrait. The individual works echo one another as the exhibition becomes a series of repeating forms, slightly shifting from one drum to the next. Some offer a shallow relief of Mehner’s visage; others take that visage and create a kind of fractured triptych within the confines of the circular drum.
The mixing of materials is echoed in the subject matter. Saligaaw is essentially an artistic campaign to save Mehner’s spoken word, to highlight Tlingit as an endangered species in need of protection. He does this by creating an environment that joins the old and new, setting the identity of a contemporary Native man against an ancient cultural practice. As an integral part of the oral tradition and ceremony of storytelling, the drums contain the history of the Tlingit language, plus the identity of the artist and questions regarding the future of both.
Da-ka-xeen: Saligaaw (it is loud-voiced) continues at the Museum of Contemporary Native Arts (108 Cathedral Place, Santa Fe, New Mexico) through December 31.